O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. – Ezra 9:6-7 ESV
In 537 B.C., 50,000 Jews were allowed to return to the land of Judah from after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. It was all made possible by a decree from Cyrus, the Persian king. They were led by Zerubbabel and their task was to rebuild the temple of God. In 487 B.C., at the decree of the Persian king, Artaxerxes, Ezra and some 2,000 other refugees returned to the land with the responsibility to restore proper worship in the temple and to reestablish and enforce God’s laws. Ezra was a scribe, an expert in the law. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they did not find things as they had expected. Ezra received a report informing him of some rather disconcerting news. “Many of the people of Israel, and even some of the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the other peoples living in the land. They have taken up the detestable practices of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. For the men of Israel have married women from these people and have taken them as wives for their sons. So the holy race has become polluted by these mixed marriages. Worse yet, the leaders and officials have led the way in this outrage” (Ezra 9:1-2 NLT).
When Ezra heard this news, he was appalled. The Hebrew word Ezra used to describe his state is shamem. It means “to be stunned, horrified, appalled, and stupified” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The exiled who had returned to the land thanks to a miracle of God and allowed to rebuild the once destroyed temple, had been breaking one of God’s cardinal laws: intermarriage. Not only that, they had been taking up “the detestable practices” of the pagan people who had occupied the land in their absence. Rather than live set apart and holy lives, dedicated to God, they had compromised their convictions and powerfully diluted their influence as the people of God. And their leaders had set the tone for this shocking display. Ezra went into mourning. Then he took the issue before the Lord. Standing before the people, he raised his hands and prayed. “O my God, I am utterly ashamed; I blush to lift up my face to you” (NLT). He came before God in a state of utter dismay and embarrassment on behalf of the people of Judah. While he had not participated in their sin, he felt a responsibility for it. He knew that, as a people, they represented God’s children. Their sin was corporate in nature. Rather than living as the chosen, set apart people of God, they had decided to become like the world around them, taking on their sinful practices and bringing shame to the very name of God.
How serious was all of this? Ezra put it in very stark terms, saying, “our sins are piled higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” This was serious business. He knew that God was fully aware of their sin and was not pleased. In fact, this latest transgression against God was a reminder of all the sins the people of Israel had committed over the centuries and that had led to their many defeats and their ultimate fall to the Babylonians. But here they were, even after 70 years of captivity, doing it all again. Ezra couldn’t believe his eyes. He couldn’t gloss over what he had seen and heard. He couldn’t act as if it hadn’t happened or it didn’t matter. Years earlier, when God had prepared to send the people into the land of Canaan for the very first time, He had told commanded them regarding the people living in the land, “You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4 NLT). God had known that the outcome of these marriages would be devastating to the spiritual well being of the Israelites. But they had failed to obey God then, and they were repeating the same mistake again. And the saddest part was that they were unashamed of their actions. It reminds me of a statement made by God before the fall of Jerusalem. Speaking of the religious leaders of Israel, God said, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12 ESV). But Ezra was ashamed. He was mortified by the actions of his fellow Jews and he brought his shame before God.
There comes a time when we must accept the reality of our corporate sin as the people of God. While we may be free from personal guilt, we still bear a responsibility to accept and acknowledge the guilt we share as part of God’s family. We cannot afford to overlook the transgressions committed by fellow believers and believe it has no impact on ourselves. Ezra knew that God’s blessings on the people of Israel would be directly influenced by their behavior. Their sin would bring His displeasure. Ezra knew that and so he too personal responsibility to confess their sins before God. Rather than simply claim his own innocence, Ezra confessed their corporate culpability before God. What good was a rebuilt temple and a restored people if they refused to live their lives set apart to God? Perhaps it’s time that we began to see our corporate sin as the people of God with greater clarity and take personal responsibility before God. Or do we feel no shame? Have we forgotten how to blush at our sin?